Gaza Violence Makes Headlines — But Media Silent on Israeli Captives
September 7, 2021, marked the seventh anniversary of when Avera Mengistu was taken captive by the Hamas terrorist group. The then-32-year-old, who had immigrated to Israel with his family from Ethiopia, developed severe schizophrenia following the death of his older brother and crossed into the Gaza Strip of his own volition.
Since then, he has not had access to treatment for his mental illness, or been afforded the privileges guaranteed by international law.
Kidnapping an innocent civilian is an egregious human rights violation; yet, even with all the recent media coverage about the confrontation between the IDF and Hamas, there has been little, if any, attention paid to Mengistu’s plight.
From a media standpoint, securing the release of hostages has over the past few years been big news. In 2020, Peter Bergen, a vice-president of the Washington, DC-based New America think tank, who has written extensively on terrorism, has described the Trump administration’s efforts to rescue hostages as “an area of significant foreign policy success.”
Much of the public has been following these stories closely, with media organizations generally providing information about any relevant developments. However, when it comes to Mengistu, these same outlets focus almost exclusively on the recurring tit-for-tat military exchanges between Israel and Hamas without raising the latter’s gross disregard for international norms.
Hamas is also holding hostage Hisham al-Sayed, an Israeli Bedouin from the southern town of Hura, who entered Gaza in 2015. He also has a history of mental illness. To date, Hamas has refused to release any information about Mengistu or al-Sayed, nor has the terrorist organization granted permission to rights groups to visit them in order to determine their respective conditions.
This applies to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is tasked with monitoring the status of captives in accordance with the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions. The provisions therein stipulate that ICRC members must be permitted to interview detainees without the presence of external witnesses. Moreover, the frequency and duration of the visits cannot be restricted.
Accordingly, the ICRC in 2017 issued a demand that “Hamas authorities comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law to the … Israeli nationals who went missing in Gaza between July 2014 and 2016 and remain unaccounted for.”
In this respect, it is important to note that Hamas is also refusing to return to Israel the remains of two IDF soldiers who were killed in Gaza during the 2014 war.
For its part, Human Rights Watch (HRW) previously issued a report condemning Hamas for holding Mengistu and al-Sayed. The group called on Gaza’s rulers to “officially and unconditionally disclose” where the Israelis were being kept, and to free them.
At the time, Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, said: “Hamas’s refusal to confirm its apparent prolonged detention of men with mental health conditions and no connection to the hostilities is cruel and indefensible. No grievance or objective can justify holding people incommunicado and bartering over their fates.”
While news outlets gloss over the unacceptable situation, Mengistu’s family members have not. They have reached out to the United Nations, ICRC, and Amnesty International for help, providing them with medical documents outlining Avera’s hospitalizations and need for daily medication and therapy. Also provided was proof that he did not serve in the IDF, and was in no way involved in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Similarly, al-Sayed’s father, Sha’aban, has called on Hamas to release his son, and has spoken about a number of unsuccessful attempts to secure Hisham’s release through diplomatic channels.
“There were all sorts of figures who asked for money in exchange for talks, but I did not agree,” Sha’aban has said. “I decided to go to the media and convey a message to Hamas and others in Gaza: Release my son.”
That message has not been adequately disseminated.
One of the media’s primary functions is to identify and report injustices being perpetrated around the world. This, in turn, keeps the pressure on serial human rights violators, while ensuring that the victims are not forgotten. As such, news outlets should be shining a bright spotlight on Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed — not burying this story because it doesn’t fit their anti-Israel narrative.
Gidon Ben-Zvi is a contributor to HonestReporting, where a version of this article first appeared.